Dec 5, 2009

The Brothers Carambazov

I just saw the original Danish film Brothers on Netflix to confirm what I felt after watching the American version yesterday: it suffers, like all American remakes, from terminal stupidization. It's as if subtlety were an infectious disease to be avoided at all costs.
Suzanne Bier's film is subtle, intimate and emotionally coherent, true to actual people, not movie clichés. The rewriting and the direction of the remake are so broad and heavy handed that all that big drama simply falls flat, despite the valiant efforts of the actors, which bring a dignity and humanity to the film that the rest of the team seems to have left at the door. A story that should have been handled with delicacy and care seems to have been written and directed by a tractor, and edited by a Brontosaurus.
There is one scene in the original film, where the entire family is celebrating the birthdays of one of the girls (in both movies, the kids are spectacular).
The Danish grandparents sit there, pretending to be happy, but when the kids leave the room they just crumple into their own exhausting grief. It is a miraculous moment that in a couple of seconds tells you more about pain than any grandiose speeches. Nothing of the sort ever happens in the American version.The main problem is the writing. There are many missed opportunities to create character and nuance. Everything is a cliché. Sam Shepard is the father, a sullen, uncommunicative Vietnam Vet and war hero who drinks on the side. How many times have you seen that in a movie? 

Why oh why this American obsession with heroics? It is inane and infantile and FUCKING BORING ALREADY. I can't take it anymore.
Or take Natalie Portman, an actress I don't particularly like. She is very good in this film, and cries convincingly every time she is required to. But who is she? What's she like, other than beautiful and a total cipher? In the original, Connie Nielsen shows character 1 minute into the film. She is a no nonsense, strong woman, not a long suffering angel with no personality.
The American movie makes stupid choices. Why does Sam Shepard have a new wife, instead of the mother of the two brothers? What good does this do?
There is a stupid business with a letter, the classic cliché of someone who gets a letter and refuses to open it. How many times have you seen that in a film?
The scenes in Afghanistan are painfully bogus and mostly unnecessary. The main terrorist wears thin rimmed glasses of the latest fashion and seems to be reading in the middle of hellhole, who knows why. Evil is intelectual?
Everything is milked for cheap sentiment, but then the characters never have moments to reveal themselves with gestures, the writer prefers to have them recriminating each other by having screaming matches.  Paradoxically, the more difficult emotional nuances of the original have been toned down, because every single American needs to be a freaking boy scout. It is revolting.
The movie is shot like a Hallmark movie of the week, with both too much coverage and quick cutting to reactions, which makes it feel totally fake, and yet there's a weird rhythm to many scenes, which seem to go on for way too long. The use of music is offensive.
The entire thing is mangled, except for the poor actors.
Tobey McGuire, losing weight for Oscar night, is very impressive as the soldier brother. His character is written like a walking cliché, but he finds the truth in the horror of his war experience. He loses it, not only spectacularly, but truly, to unspeakable guilt and anguish, even if he is saddled with a ridiculous, contrived suicidal scene.
Jake Gyllenhaal just does not have enough edge as the fuck up brother. He has been better in other movies, like Jarhead or even Zodiac. He is adorable, but not right for this role. He and Tobey look the same age, which is a problem. His relationship with his brother's wife is incomprehensible and I blame the writer and the director for that, although an actor with a more independent, imaginative streak perhaps would have found more complexity in the role.
Actually, the only one bearing the brunt of the complexity is Tobey McGuire and he acquits himself with flying colors.
Watching the Danish film, i realized that besides the family drama, the movie posits that our fight against barbarism is turning us into barbarians. The fear of the West is that we are being forced to stoop down to worse than Neanderthal level (with apologies to Neanderthals). The American film is too busy trying to be marketable to make these kinds of connections. It's one redeeming virtue is that it brings out the topic of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and of the human consequences of our wars in those places. For a much more honest depiction of this, I recommend The Messenger.
And certainly, the Danish original movie, Brothers.

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